Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Brooklyn and Queens Cemetery Tour

Sometime in 2013, I walked into a used book store near my home in Philadelphia. It was a small place, and I was too lazy to look around so I asked the owner if he had any books about cemeteries. His reply surprised me. He said, “Whenever I get a book about cemeteries, I put it in the front window, because I know it will be sold within a week. Books about cemeteries are very popular - for all the right and wrong reasons.

Well, a purchase I made recently was for the right reason – I didn’t have it! There’s a great, quirky used book store in Philly where I’ve found a number of death-related books – it is a music and book store at 2027 Sansom Street, called Long in the Tooth. (I’ve actually thanked the owners for putting all the death books in one place for me – I believe they were amused.) About six months ago, I purchased from them a copy of Silent Cities (by Kenneth T. Jackson and Camilo Jose’ Vergara, 1989, Princeton Architectural Press), a wonderfully written and printed large-format color photographic cemetery book. Until I found it on their shelf, I never knew it existed.

Silent Cities (whose full name is Silent Cities – The Evolution of the American Cemetery) now occupies a prominent spot among the many cemetery books on my own book shelf. One thing I hadn’t expected to find inside were color images of some very elusive monuments I had photographed a decade ago! It solved a puzzle for me that I’d been wrestling with for quite some time.

Image by Krista Baker, cemetery unknown

Back in 2003, my friend Krista Baker and I made a mad, one-day road trip through as many Brooklyn and Queens (New York) cemeteries as we could. We covered about twenty miles of territory from Flatbush to Flushing, basically following Route 278 (the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway) west. We didn’t spend much time on the highway, though, using paper road maps (remember them?) to navigate from one cemetery to the next through the densely populated commercial and residential neighborhoods. It was a whirlwind tour, and I was shooting film, basically looking for angel statues with which to create artistic, high-contrast black and white images. Luckily, Krista was shooting digital, and more competently documented our tour with her many wonderful color photographs (the photos in this article are hers, with exceptions noted).

Image by Krista Baker, cemetery unknown
I don’t remember much of the trip, and we did not actually write down the names of our stops. In retrospect, this was unfortunate because after I began posting cemetery images on Facebook, I had to ignore most of the images we made on that day as I had no locations with which to identify the statues and monuments! (This was before the advent of digital cameras that could GPS-tag your images!) At the time, I did not even own a digital camera; Krista’s various digitals were my initial foray into that world.

Image by Ed Snyder
After driving from Philadelphia to Staten Island, we began shooting in Brooklyn’s massive Green-Wood Cemetery (478 acres!) and ended at Flushing Cemetery, in Queens, hitting no less than twenty Victorian graveyards along the way. Now these were not small places – several were over a hundred acres! Needless to say, we did not spent much more than an hour at any one stop. The locations of some of the monuments and statues I photographed stuck in my mind, so I have remembered their cemeteries through the years. Most of the locations in which our hundreds of photographs were made, however, have faded from Krista’s and my own memory.

Green-Wood's Gothic Entrance Arch
For whatever reason, I recall the angel on the pedestal (above) being at the entrance to The Evergreens Cemetery, at the border between Brooklyn and Queens. The images of Green-Wood's Gothic arched entrance way were obvious, though our photos of the statuary inside the cemetery are not so easily identified (which is good, I suppose, since photography was not allowed inside in 2003!). I’ve been able to pin down a few more of the image locations such as this view of Manhattan (below) taken from Calvary Cemetery (Woodside section of Queens), the location used in the film, The Godfather, for the funeral of Don Corleone.

Calvary Cemetery, Queens, NY (Manhattan skyline in background)

By Ed Snyder
I remember spending quite a bit of time photographing the statue of this crying woman, whose hands hold a bouquet of artificial flowers. I posted it once on Facebook and someone commented that its location is in St. John Cemetery (Middle Village, Queens), permanent home of more actual real mobsters than you can shake a blackjack at, e.g. Lucky Luciano and John Gotti (click link for full list of names).

When Krista and I visited all these places, we were mainly looking for interesting statues and architecture. I don’t think it occurred to either of us that there would be famous, or even infamous people buried in them. In retrospect, it would have been interesting to see Dizzy Gillespie’s grave in Flushing Cemetery or Charles Atlas’ grave at St. John in Queens. Even where the presence of notables was obvious, I don’t recall us being drawn to them. Brooklyn’s massive Green-Wood Cemetery, for instance, where framed photographs of all the famous interred hang on the wall of the office (including Leonard Bernstein and Basquiat, for instance), did not seem to rouse our interest much. We were just enthralled with the sculptures in these magnificent Victorian garden cemeteries.

Image by Krista Baker
Certain things stick out in my memory, like the mile-and-a-half stretch of cemetery clusters as you entered Queens near the Broadway transit junction on Fulton Street. We hit most of these hillside cemeteries, at one point watching a motorcycle funeral in Mt. Hope Cemetery while we were on the other side of the Jackie Robinson Parkway in Mount Lebanon Cemetery. We stopped for dinner in a Cuban sandwich shop somewhere in Glendale.

Image by Krista Baker
There were two monuments that Krista and I spent quite a bit of time photographing - apparently we both found them fascinating. One is this marble sculpture (above) with life-sized figures of Father Time and a female human mourner; the other was this granite monument (at right) to a person who seemed to be a hunter. Truly, two of the most unusual and intricate memorials I have ever seen. The first, heavily adorned with Victorian mourning symbolism, the latter, unusually personal and a tad bizarre. I wanted to know more about them, but the problem was, we had no idea where we had found them! Over the past few years, I posted photos of them on Facebook with requests for info about their cemetery homes, but no one ever responded.

Then, as luck would have it, in 2013 I found the book, Silent Cities. Many of the photographs in the book, oddly, were of the same monuments Krista and I photographed in the New York boroughs! Even more oddly, the two we found most fascinating were in there too! Turns out they are in the SAME cemetery, Lutheran Cemetery in Queens. Finally, I had locations and names of this and some of the other marvelous cemeteries we visited.

From the book, Silent Cities – The Evolution of the American Cemetery

The authors of Silent Cities, Jackson and Vergara, tell us, “The overwhelming emphasis in American cemeteries is on hopeful images which exclude death and decay.” On page 84, in the chapter, “American Images of Death,” we find a photograph of the very same white marble monument with Father Time with which Krista and I were so enthralled. It incorporates pretty much every bit of mourning art symbolism of the Victorian era – Father Time (or is it the Grim Reaper?), a designated female mourner with palm frond, broken column, the funerary urn, the open book, and the “time flies” winged-hourglass! (Did I miss anything?!) The book tells us it rests on the grave of a Mason in the Lutheran Cemetery in Queens. I remember this place having lots of shade trees and being in a sort of small-town residential location. Perhaps the trees have provided some shelter from the acid rain - there appears to be very little weathering of the marble sculptures. The monument may have also avoided vandals because of its high pedestal.

From the book, Silent Cities
On page 52 of Silent Cities, in the chapter, “German Americans,” we find the image at left. It is easily one of the most remarkable cemetery memorials I’ve yet seen. David Koebler (1848 – 1898) was a hunter, I assume. The monument is large – a magnificently sculpted granite tree trunk with an anchor and lilies (typical Victorian death symbolism), yet highly personalized with the addition of the hunting symbolism. I’d love to know more about Koebler's story, the significance of the rabbit sitting on crossed shotguns, with marble hunting dogs above.  One may assume that Mr. Koebler has indeed gone on to that Happy Hunting Ground.

As I look through the Silent Cities book, I realize that I did not pay attention to most of the amazing non-angelic statues and architecture in these wonderful cemeteries. How did we miss them? As I said earlier, I was at the time shooting mainly angels, and unfortunately bypassed many of these other wonderful cemetery statues and monuments – a mistake I don’t plan to make again.

Please visit some of the cemeteries about which I’ve written. Here are their websites:

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting.. My grandfather is in the Lutherine Cemetery, Anthony(Anton) Wettach,once owner of the 18 acres where the United Nations is (a slaughter house)besides other business a successful enterpreuner from Switzerland at age 17 as well as Mr Bohack came from Germany at 17, penniless to to aaquire 740 stores. My brother Ralphie(wettach) Hale born
    3/17/37 - 2/17/38 buried (in Lutherine) nearby his grandfather. which I will visit today on his birth date!